Friday, July 12, 2013

Social Truth II

Social Truths are usually at least half-true.  It's hard to sustain a culture on absolute falsehoods.  While one is living within them, they seem much more than that. In 19th C America, a core social truth was that one should strive to be the best that one could at a chosen career. This could take different forms, with one subculture highlighting a praise of hard work while another expressed it as pursuit of excellence and a third intent on building something that would last, but it was a common thought. We think of American drive and growth as tied into pursuit of dollars, and turn up our noses at it a bit. But that was never most of the story and for some it was no part at all.  Artists of the era would not spend their days talking about art - that was for dilettantes. Many would spend 16 hours a day improving their craft.

Tangential anecdote: when Mark Twain was touring Europe, visiting with writers and artists of an evening and discussing many things, he would ask "What is art?" to signal that the evening had come to an end and all should retire to bed. Contrast this with the modern fashions of artists who create works specifically to "start a conversation" about what art is, and how people react to it...oh, I'm sorry.  I just threw up in my mouth a little bit,

That idea that one was expected to use one's God-given abilities to the utmost may have been stronger in Yankeedom - I certainly heard the parable of the talents preached more than other teachings of Jesus I hear more of now. Yet even if it was stronger here, it was well-known throughout the land.

Another 19th C value, more common among poets and writers but spreading into the general consciousness, was the primacy of Beauty. Keats' Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know  is not something we have no understanding of today, but few of us would take such an extreme stance.  But it hung on for quite some time, until the 20th C painters decided it was all an illusion that had best be dispelled as soon as possible. Beauty was a Thing, hard as steel.
“The war made me poignantly aware of the beauty of the world I remember,” Tolkien said in 1968. “I remember miles and miles of seething, tortured earth, perhaps best described in the chapters about the approaches to Mordor. It was a searing experience.”
led eventually to
"There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach."
Other cultures have stressed loyalty above all other things. Piety has figured prominently as an American value in all our founding cultures, but intensely in a few.  Many other cultures over the centuries have prized chastity, especially among women.  Not putting oneself forward or not thinking too highly of oneself are rather Scandinavian values, but other tribes would rather you assert yourself and display self-confidence, even if unfelt. Or undeserved. Simplicity for Quakers and Shakers, understatement for WASPs.  Military men and academics have these understandings that all their friends just know. Political factions have their forbidden territories as well.  These are social truths, and they all have good things attached to them. But any virtue swollen out of proportion is dangerous, because it pushes out others.

Unselfishness rose to one of the top spots in the 20th C, at least in the Anglosphere, as did expressing compassion, but tolerance has caught and passed them in the latter half.  Tolerance of a sort: it has morphed into a sort of underdog-rooting that begins to obscure other realities. That's the mark of a social truth, actually - even coming close to criticising the virtue or wandering within a stone's throw of committing it is electric, bringing disproportionate condemnation.  Marble nudes used to bring condemnation, but modesty invites jeers now.

Here's an interesting twist.  When a social truth becomes too brittle, you drive even the mildest offenders into the camps of the outlaws, those who revel in the flouting of the rules. That principle was an argument against using marijuana in the old days: it puts you in with criminals and users of worse things - and an argument for legalisation now: why drive harmless dopers to consort with criminals? It's actually true both times.

Relatedly, social truths can reverse intentionally to sort people out.  In the 19th C and well into the 20th most Americans believed that Indians were subhuman.  This has been replaced by the idea that Native Americans, and indeed primitive peoples everywhere, are gentle souls or great wisdom, to be emulated by ignorant civilised westerners.  If one makes even the mildest negative comment about indigenous peoples, it is often assumed that you must therefore believe the opposite social truth and regard them as stupid and brutal savages who deserved what they got.  At least, you can get accused of believing that.

A commenter over at Steve Sailer's asserted that racism is the only unforgivable sin now.  I don't think that's true, but there's truth in it. Celebrities recover from profligacy, arrests, betrayal, violence, fraud, or cruelty, and some vices are of course career-enhancers now. To a lesser extent, this becomes true for the general public. Sexism is more problematic - you can be sexist, just don't say anything forbidden. Prominent political figures come to mind here. Don't go too near the edge talking about gays and lesbians, either.  That stain won't wash out. As with other social truths, the identifier is that you can't even go near it without incurring condemnation. Refusing to be warned away is itself grounds for suspicion.

We deplore things according to social truths extra-loudly, because we want to show that we really, truly, do hate those things and do so totally get it, and are one with the spirit of the age.

I told you all that in order to tell you a short story.

A young man of my acquaintance related that he had an attempted theft of his smartphone while at a bar. He mentioned straight off that it was "a black guy." Well, we know the rule.  It's impolite to point that out, and contributes to a further social problem of prejudice.  I know this social truth because it is how I grew up, and how I continue to speak now.  99% of everyone are not people who will steal your phone, so you shouldn't encourage negative stereotypes that way.  The man's race should be regarded as an irrelevant detail.

Another person present brought this up later.  In fact, he brought it up a couple of times as evidence of his concern about the young man's prejudicial nature.* His return to the topic was what got me thinking. Yes, it is prejudicial to speak that way.  But isn't stealing someone's phone worse?  If we're going to get worked up, the victimisation of a young friend should rank higher, shouldn't it?  And while we're at it, there is at least some value to reminding others of the safety concern of a higher crime rate A) in many minority groups and B) encountering any group that is not your own. (Such as being a tourist in London and getting ripped off repeatedly by vendors making change.)

But in social truth, those must take a back seat.

I continue to see more advantage to the world in my politely refusing to mention even an obvious physical fact that might be misinterpreted as a blanket criticism or stereotyping. But treating it as reflexive and obvious is on the road to disregarding whether the social true is in fact, true enough to be retained.

*There were other parts to that conversation, but they would only lengthen the discussion while bringing us back to the same place.


William Newman said...

Not inviting the listener to generalize from an anecdote is not just a norm cooked up to support the current political coalition, it is one aspect of a norm which applies even to politically neutral things. People sometimes casually invite listeners to generalize about how a single incident shows that you can't trust computers, or that Apple products are inferior or superior, or other judgment-call generalizations. There are ways you can frame such remarks carefully without seeming unserious, and there are venues where you can do this to throw red meat to true believers, but in general if you just blurt it out as self-evident, it tends to be taken as a signal that you're not very good at thinking seriously.

To me, the more noteworthy politicization of this apolitical norm runs in the other direction, not protecting Progressive coalition groups like blacks but declaring open season on their enemies. People seem to feel free to be careless about this norm in support of Progressive coalition talking points about how businessmen or husbands or rednecks or whatever are bad, compared to how careful they would be about anecdotal remarks in support of politically neutral generalizations.

Texan99 said...

I wouldn't mention the race of someone who'd irritated me unless I were giving a description so he/she could be identified and avoided/arrested. To me, it would be the equivalent of saying "This Christian type came up to me, and before I knew it, he had spilled his drink in my lap." The gratuitous animus is unmistakable. And when I hear someone else do it, I immediately assume he has a chip on his shoulder about the malefactor's race. It makes me question the story.

I don't think it's a PC thing for me at all. When someone's race or religion is relevant--if he's yelling "Kill Whitey" or "Allah Akbar"--I'm not interested in dancing around the subject.